Remembering Robert Brustein, a Giant of the American Theatre

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When Robert Brustein died, at ninety-six, he concluded not one but four stunning careers. A critic at The New Republic, off and on, for more than forty years, he was a university professor who founded two major theatres—the Yale Repertory Theatre, in New Haven, and the American Repertory Theatre, at Harvard. He authored more than a dozen books and produced hundreds of plays. Along the way, he supported and championed an entire American theatrical pantheon, including the playwrights David Mamet and Suzan-Lori Parks, directors such as Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis, and actors like Cherry Jones, F. Murray Abraham, and Meryl Streep. He himself was also a playwright: my favorite work of his is a klezmer-infused adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Shlemiel the First,” produced at the A.R.T. in 1994.

Brustein held theatre to a high standard—one that was intellectual, visually audacious, international, explicitly noncommercial, and devoted to the now almost vanished model of a resident theatre company playing in a rotating repertory. One of his hallmark offerings at Harvard, for graduate students, was a class called Rep Ideal, in which he held forth on how a permanent company of actors could forge a bond between the institution and a community. Nothing else, he said, could create such a flexible acting instrument, nor offer a visiting director (say, from Eastern Europe) such a thrilling challenge. His well-forged A.R.T. company (mostly made up of gifted clowns) was, he felt, the reason his theatre could take on wild opportunities—a section of Robert Wilson’s epic multimedia experiment “The Civil Wars,” for instance—that might boggle an ad-hoc ensemble.

Brustein had a fifth and more ill-defined career, too, as a public intellectual. Do we even have those anymore? A storm often brewed around Brustein—and his lightning strikes were visible across the country. His debate at Town Hall with August Wilson, in 1997, about race in American theatre, made national news: the two titans battled over everything from so-called “race blind” casting (Wilson was against it) to the formation of Black theatres (Brustein considered them self-segregating). Brustein valued the thrust and parry of the mind. In his seminal book of popular criticism, “The Theatre of Revolt,” he asks you to understand the mutton-chopped, bourgeois Ibsen as a bomb-throwing rebel. I read “Theatre of Revolt” every year, yet, when I come across his theatrical reviews from the sixties, I sometimes recoil at their pugnacious tone—as, later in life, did he.

At The New Republic, he threw his own critical grenades, sometimes as a way to open a path for the more experimental work he loved. The New Yorker’s own John Lahr corresponded with Brustein in 2014 about a particularly lacerating line in a 1980 review of Tennessee Williams’s “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” in which Brustein had written, “I suspect the playwright would just as soon let the moment pass in silence while he licks his wounds and ponders his next move (perhaps a flight to Three Mile Island on a one-way ticket).” In a warm e-mail exchange with Lahr, Williams’s biographer, Brustein seemed sure he hadn’t said any such thing. “I can’t imagine myself making such a cruel and aggressive remark,” he wrote. By then, his approach to artists had softened, perhaps from age, or from the experience of being in the creative hurly-burly himself. “He disowned a lot of those fierce opinions,” Lahr told me.

Yet Brustein’s legacy will, at least in part, be this air of combat. In a discussion group, the producer Rocco Landesman once laughingly reminded Brustein that he had held the rights to “Big River” when A.R.T. mounted it, after Brustein inveighed against nonprofits producing work in tandem with commercial producers. “Bob expressed great surprise but didn’t change his opinion for a second,” the Public Theatre’s artistic director Oskar Eustis told me over e-mail, admiring Brustein’s ability to stick by a principle even while not entirely adhering to it. And, by Brustein’s own account, he was partly to blame for some hostility between the Boston audience and his theatre, which lost early subscribers by the fistful after, among other things, a Lee Breuer production of Wedekind’s “Lulu,” in which Jack the Ripper slashed Lulu’s throat, then washed his bloody hands in a toilet bowl. “It didn’t help when, in trying to account for the exodus, I opened my big mouth on radio to speculate that perhaps we had overestimated the extent of Boston’s theatrical sophistication,” Brustein wrote, in a not-altogether-self-effacing essay.

But there’s another legacy, too. I first saw the great classical performer John Douglas Thompson at the A.R.T., in a Ron Daniels production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” in 1995. Five actors, playing the entire French Army, appeared in a line with huge, silk-caparisoned horse puppets buckled around their waists—their feet, in platform shoes, became hooves. They pranced in place, too proud to notice that the floor (a mechanical elevator that lowered into the orchestra pit) was sinking beneath them. Thompson spoke wistfully with me about his time being honed by Brustein’s year-in, year-out company model, which has since been abandoned. “With Robert being gone, the atmosphere is also gone,” Thompson told me. “It’s the end of an era, of all the potential that regional theatre had built up—and what it could be going forward.”

I met Brustein as an undergraduate at Harvard in the mid-nineties, when the university was briefly reconsidering its relationship with the A.R.T. Brustein, who came to Cambridge in 1980, had installed his organization in the Loeb Drama Center, which the students had always rather assumed belonged to them. In the late nineties, Harvard held a series of panel discussions about the relationship; I was then the president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and gave a little testimonial in favor. Harvard at that time had no drama department, and so much of our education in theatre-as-practice was in making our own stuff—and in seeing the workings of a company up close.

I learned a lot from Brustein’s classes and criticism, but perhaps even more from the plays he programmed: Shaw, Pirandello, Sophocles—writers I now too rarely get to see. My favorite place in the world was then a doorway at the back of the main-stage theatre, where you could slip in and watch the proceedings. One of the triumphs of that era was Andrei Belgrader’s Rabelaisian “Ubu Rock,” in which Thomas Derrah sang a deliberately infuriating song. This “Button Song”—“My jacket has one button, one button”—goes on and on, à la “99 Bottles of Beer,” until the audience begins to jeer and fling things. A group of us would sneak in to see it every night, secure in the erroneous belief that no one would notice a line of scruffy undergrads lurking in plain view.

Brustein, hearing my positive review on the Harvard panel, became both a friend and a mentor, which later led to my returning to the theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, and graduating in his final cohort in 2002. When he was retiring, I helped assemble a scrapbook of memories, which was presented to him at a ceremony. I still have the e-mail from F. Murray Abraham. “There is a line from the 23rd psalm that perfectly describes Robert Brustein for me: he restoreth my soul.”

Brustein was immensely impressive. I don’t mean that he was imperious—my main image of him is of a tall, slow loris, ambling around amiably, popping his head in every room—nor that he was regal, since he had a twinkly, just-about-to-pratfall affect. I mean instead that he made deep impressions on those who worked with and around him. I am a child of his mind: I see his stamp on my taste, but also my choice of career. Brustein made it seem like the most natural thing in the world to be a critic, and a surprising number of people who stood in that upstairs Loeb doorway went on to write about theatre.

Gideon Lester, another of Brustein’s protégées, was in the literary department when I was there. He’s now the artistic director at the Fisher Center at Bard. Lester follows the Brustein spirit of directorial empowerment (for example, the adventurous Daniel Fish version of “Oklahoma!”)—but not the letter of his anti-commercial law. (That same show went to Broadway.) Lester thinks that there’s some special alchemy in the way Brustein was simultaneously an avuncular, loving figure and a bare-knuckle scrapper. “It takes real guts to run an institution which is, in certain circles, profoundly unpopular,” says Lester. “I remember, in my first years in Cambridge, going to dinner parties, meeting people, and they would say, ‘Oh, you work at A.R.T.? I hate that place.’ Nobody felt neutral about it.”

Not feeling neutral about any of it—that was Brustein’s way. He was a lion in a lost pride of critics—Eric Bentley, Harold Clurman, Richard Gilman—who had confidence in the theatre as a form and in their own ability to influence it. “It’s the (critic’s) job not to just look at theatre but to look after it,” Lahr said. These popular, widely read critics reviewed shows and wrote books of theory, but they also built institutions, made translations of international works, and stimulated a passionate national discussion. What we have now is close to the opposite of a thriving theatre scene—one where no one is shouting, or, if they are, they’re only shouting into echo chambers. For seventy years, though, Brustein was a kind of warrior. Like those French knights in “Henry V,” he buckled on his armor, and rode into battle until—and this breaks my heart—he was playing an army all by himself. ♦


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